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City of Whispers
By Marcia Muller
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2012 Marcia Muller
All right reserved.
Sometimes when I’m alone and can’t sleep I listen to the sounds of the city.
The grinding and clanging of the J-Church streetcar as it rounds the turn and stops on Thirtieth Street. Foghorns moaning out at the Golden Gate. Cars rumbling, dogs howling, the neighbors’ TVs mumbling. The occasional conversations of passersby and the white noise of the freeways.
But mostly what I listen to is whispers.
This city, it makes me afraid.
I love you….
Nobody can find out what I did.
Out here nobody looks at me.
What happened to you?
The night is different.
How could you do this to me?
I love you….
I couldn’t’ve done that….
Tell me everything about that time.
I hurt all over.
Dark, like it’s supposed to be when you’re dead.
Where am I?
Maybe I’m dead.
Of course the whispers are echoes of my past. I’ve heard them all over time. But I suspect that somewhere in the city these words, or very similar ones, are still being spoken.
This city is large and diverse. There are pockets of grinding poverty, pockets of middle-class respectability, pockets of wealth. There is corruption beyond a normal person’s belief, and incredible selflessness and valor. Intrigue worthy of a spy novel, and innocence and wonder. Eight hundred thousand–plus people, living out their stories.
And all too often, their stories merge with mine.
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 7
September in the city, Labor Day barbecues in a misty fog come and gone. On this day, glorious sunshine and clear blue skies. Our summer was about to begin.
I climbed the stairway to the agency’s offices off the north-side catwalk of Pier 24½. Waved to everybody as I passed their open doors. Flopped my briefcase on my desk, sat down, and opened my e-mail.
Reports on cases from my nephew and techno-whiz Mick Savage. Copies of correspondence from the other operatives. A plaintive note from Ma: “When are you going to forgive me?”
For what? Because she’d gone ballistic after I’d been shot in the head and trapped for a time in a locked-in state? (Like a coma, except I was aware of everything around me, could hear and see but not move or communicate except for eyeblinks. Believe me, that is one of the lower levels of hell.) And when your mother hurls herself on your chest, weeping and wailing, it only makes the situation worse.
My hospitalization had ended a year ago; I’d gone through intensive physical therapy and still worked out several times a week at a gym. Occasionally I tired easily and there were periods when—asleep or awake—I’d flash back to the shooting and experience drenching sweats, shakiness, and disorientation. But basically I was okay and improving steadily. Eventually, my neurologist told me, the aftereffects would disappear. I wasn’t so sure of that, but they were things I was learning to live with.
This message from Ma—her stock in trade is histrionics and she wouldn’t be Ma without them. Likely she, recently widowed and a new convert to e-mail, had written this to one of my three siblings and sent it to the wrong address. And what would she be asking any of them to forgive her for? I’d have to check with them.
My other mother, the one who had given birth to me and put me up for adoption, had forwarded a notice of her upcoming appearance on Good Morning America. Saskia Blackhawk was a Boise, Idaho, attorney who had argued Indian-rights cases all the way to the Supreme Court—and won every time. She was much sought after on the talk-show circuit.
Nothing from Hy, currently in Zurich, on a case involving the changing privacy rules of the Swiss banks. Nothing from my friend Piper, who had promised to look into memberships for us in the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.
A notice from the city port commission about a scheduled hearing on demolishing old piers. Pier 24½ was in that category, in spite of the thriving businesses that rented space here. So far, with the intervention of a powerful attorney friend of mine, we had been spared. But for how much longer?
I put the thought aside and opened the rest of my mail. Client, commending me for a job well done. Humane Society, thanking me for my contribution. Democrats.org: breaking news, not good. Coldwater Creek: my order had shipped.
email@example.com, only the subject line read, “From Darcy.” The message was brief: “Help me. I’m in SF.”
He was piggybacking off Saskia’s account. Probably had stolen her password; she never would have given it to him.
Bet he wanted money.
Darcy Blackhawk was my half brother from Saskia’s long marriage to Thomas Blackhawk, a fellow attorney who had died several years ago. They’d also had a daughter, Robin, currently enrolled in law school at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall. Unlike his sister, Darcy was a troubled kid who’d dropped out of school, done a wide assortment of drugs, and run with bad companions, and who couldn’t hold down a job for more than a week. He’d briefly turned his life around, about the time I discovered my other family, and gotten a job editing videos for a local TV station. But the desire for drugs had proven stronger than the desire for success, and while stoned he’d destroyed the footage of a violent antiabortion demonstration during which a woman was fatally shot. He’d been fired, then had backslid and sunk to a new low.
Saskia couldn’t keep track of him, although periodically he turned up at her house for food or shelter. Last she’d heard he’d been living under a bridge on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, northeast of Boise near Challis. In a recent phone conversation Saskia had said bitterly, “Ironic that it’s also called the River of No Return.”
And I had thought, Under a bridge just like a troll.
Well, the troll was on the move. No computers under bridges—usually.
I shot the message over to Mick, asking him if he could find out where it was sent from—probably some Internet café. Not an easy task for most people to accomplish quickly, but a snap for the co-creator of SavageFor.com, a real-time search engine under the management of the giant Omnivore. Mick knew the side roads and back alleys of the Internet, and could get from one to another in his sleep.
Then I carefully composed a reply to Darcy.
Of course I’ll help you, but I need more information. Where are you? And what’s the problem? You know you can always come to me, either at the pier or at home. I miss you and love you.—S
I looked critically at what I’d written, then deleted the last sentence. Neither sentiment was true.
Next I called Saskia in Boise.
“You’re about to get a strange message from me,” I told her. “Darcy’s using your Comcast account from someplace here in San Francisco. He sent me a message asking for help. I replied to him, hoping he’ll tap into your mail again.”
“That little—” She broke off, but it was obvious what the next word would’ve been. “How did he get my password?”
“How does he get anything?”
“Steals. Sometimes I let myself forget that he’s not stupid, just emotionally challenged.”
Darcy was expert at taking money from a till when a cashier had his or her back turned; he’d never held up anyplace—as far as anyone knew—but he’d cadged large amounts from people on the street who felt sorry for him or were afraid of his craziness.
“How long d’you suppose he’s been down here?” I asked. “He was still on the Salmon River a month ago.”
“I don’t know. What does he want you to help him with?”
“He didn’t say. Money, probably. I’m assuming he’ll get back to me. Do you know any reason for him to come to the Bay Area?”
“… No. Robin’s made it clear she doesn’t want to see him, and I think she’s warned him not to bother you.”
Robin and Darcy couldn’t be more different. Robin’s feelings for her brother were complex: compassion because he was a weak and troubled man; anger because he’d taken advantage of her one time too many; a strong desire to keep him out of her life; an equally strong desire to protect her mother from him. And, I supposed, a little bit of love because he was, after all, her brother.
“Has he been in any trouble recently?” I asked.
“Only the usual.” Saskia’s tone was wry with a touch of sadness.
“What’s ‘the usual’?”
“Shoplifting. He tried to steal a whole ham from the supermarket. Do you know what kind of bulge a whole ham makes under a hoodie? And then it turned out the hoodie still had its tags on it—he’d taken it from Kmart the day before.”
Uh-huh. Maybe Darce was stupid.
“Oh, items have disappeared from my house: cash, soap, towels, one of his father’s golfing trophies that could easily be pawned. Cereal, his favorite kind, Froot Loops.”
“There’s something else too,” Saskia added. “He assaulted a police officer.”
“Great. When, where, and why?”
“About ten days ago. Under the bridge on the Salmon River. The police were removing him and the other homeless persons from their encampment—that’s how I knew he was there.”
“You bail him out?”
“And he took off.”
“Well, he came home for a few hours. Then, according to my neighbor, a woman—a druggie friend, no doubt—appeared, and the two of them left with my silver tea set.”
Saskia’s voice, usually so forceful and assured, was clogged with shame and grief. “Sharon,” she added, “I think he’s getting worse.”
“In what ways?”
“At times he can pass for lucid, but mostly he slips in and out of reality. Sometimes you look into his eyes and wonder if he’s really all there. I’m surprised he remembered your e-mail address, but sometimes bits of factual information pop into his mind, and he uses them. Other times—” She broke off, her voice ragged.
I spared her any more questioning, simply saying, “I’ll find out what he’s up to and keep you posted.”
As I waited for Mick to get back to me I thought about my birth family. A few years ago, when the father who had raised me died, he’d left me the task of disposing of the contents of his garage—no small chore, since no McCone had ever thrown anything out. The Pack Rat Family. There, in a carton of personal papers, I found—as Pa had intended me to—my adoption papers.
Ma refused to talk about them. My siblings didn’t know anything, had always believed we were blood relatives, even though my dark Indian looks had contrasted markedly with their blond Scotch-Irish appearance. I was a throwback to my Shoshone great-grandmother, my parents had told us. Nobody’d questioned that; it’s a scientific fact that throwbacks do exist.
So after finding the document I’d begun a search for my birth parents. Who else was so suited to the task? It eventually led me to the Flathead Reservation in Montana, where I found my father, a Shoshone artist named Elwood Farmer, who had married a Flathead woman and moved there many years ago. Then I traced Saskia to Boise, Idaho. Elwood and I were still struggling toward defining our relationship, but Saskia and Robin and I had become a family of sorts—with Darcy always lurking on the edges. He seemed to resent our closeness but made no effort to join in. Or maybe he didn’t resent it, simply had no capacity to relate.
Either way, none of us could understand the tangles and turns of Darcy’s mind, and if what Saskia said about his getting worse was true, those tangles and turns would be even more impenetrable now. He shouldn’t be running free on the streets, where he was a danger to himself and others—
My cell rang. Ma. E-mail had failed her so she’d resorted to her favorite form of communication.
“Are you still mad at me?”
So the e-mail had been intended for me after all. “For what?”
“Well, I sent those new pink bedroom slippers I bought for you to Patsy and she kept them.”
“Patsy has huge feet; they couldn’t have fit her.”
“They were stretchy.”
“I called her and asked her to send them to you, but she denies having received them.”
“Probably she didn’t.”
“That’s right. Just an hour ago I found a delivery confirmation receipt here. They went to John.”
Not only was she confusing her three daughters, but all her children. I suppressed a laugh, imagining what John must have thought when he opened a package containing stretchy—and probably fuzzy—pink slippers.
“Tell John to send them to me.” I spoke in a light tone, but I was really concerned. Pa had died years ago, and it had been a year and a half since Melvin Hunt, Ma’s second husband, succumbed to cancer. Ma didn’t know what to do with herself, and it was making her mentally lazy—something she’d never been.
“Oh, I’ll do that,” she said. “So you aren’t mad at me?”
“Why would I be?”
“Well, one of my children is. I can feel it.”
Ma had always been overly imaginative, so her response didn’t surprise me, but it alarmed me a bit. However, now was not the time to suggest she get out more, become a charity volunteer, or take a course in ceramics at the senior center. I chatted a bit and ended the call.
An aging parent. I’d been warned about this. But Ma was healthy and had a lot of good years left. I didn’t believe in interfering with what someone wanted to do with her life, yet I sensed she was reaching out. A family council meeting was in order soon.
Mick stood in the doorway—tall, blond, trim, and handsome. Even I considered him handsome, and I’d known him as a scowly, mean little brat not too many years ago.
“Darcy’s message was sent from an Internet café on Chestnut Street,” he said. “It’s called The Wiring Hall.”
“The Marina.” It wasn’t a neighborhood where I could picture Darcy. The district fronting the Bay east of the Golden Gate Bridge was distinctly upscale; nowhere in the city could you see more well-dressed mommies and daddies pushing expensive baby strollers and walking pedigreed dogs.
“Yep. You heard back from him yet?”
Even though Mick was himself a former fuckup, he didn’t like Darcy. Well, neither did I, much.
Mick said, “Why did he e-mail you? He could’ve come here to the pier or your house.”
“Darcy’s brain is… wired differently than most people’s. He has no sense of results or consequences. When the impulse strikes him, whatever he wants to happen has got to happen now, not later. He may have gone into the café to get change so he could call me, but then he saw a computer terminal. And there you have it.”
“And everybody—you, Saskia, and Robin—just puts up with this kind of behavior?”
“Pretty much. He’s been in and out of psychiatric institutions, but none of them did any good.”
“Seems to me you three should lose him.”
That made sense, but both Mick and I knew from tough experience that when someone who’s related to you asks for help, help is what you’ve got to give.
My intercom buzzed. Ted, our super-efficient office manager—or, as he preferred to call himself, Grand Poobah—said, “Mr. MacGruder is here.”
MacGruder: a prospective client, potentially lucrative. He owned a medium-sized software firm and was concerned about employee espionage.
I said to Mick, “Can you take over with this client? MacGruder, I told you about him. I need to start looking for Darcy.”
“Shar, the important clients need to initially meet with the head of the agency. That’s what they expect, and what we give.”
“I’ll go look for him. You stay here and don’t worry.”
But I would worry. I didn’t doubt Mick’s abilities, but I was a hands-on investigator. I’d worry plenty….
This business with Darcy is going to be trouble, he thought as he went back to his office. The guy was bad news and he pulled other people down.
Like the time after the wedding reception Grandma had thrown for Shar and Hy, when Darcy set the shrubbery behind her garage on fire while smoking dope. And the time he wrecked his sister Robin’s apartment in Berkeley, bringing home three derelicts he’d met on Telegraph Avenue and leaving behind empty bottles, smashed glasses, cigarette-burned furniture, stained carpets, torn draperies, and a broken oven door—all of which was accomplished in one afternoon while she was in her torts class. He’d cost Saskia plenty for fines, bail, and settlements to ward off lawsuits.
And now this troll stuff…
Asshole deserved to live under a bridge.
Mick went into his office and slumped in his swivel chair. Derek Ford, the other member of McCone Investigations’ geek squad, wasn’t there, had probably gone out for coffee. After a moment’s reflection Mick dialed Robbie Blackhawk’s number in Berkeley. She picked up immediately, her crisp, hurried tone making her sound as if he’d caught her on her way out. “Has Darcy contacted you?” he asked.
“Who? Darcy? No.”
“He’s in the city, just e-mailed Shar wanting help.”
“Help with what?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Shit.” Her voice was flat.
“Did you change the locks after that time he trashed your place?”
“Yes. Dammit, what’s he gotten himself into this time?”
“Whatever it is, it wouldn’t surprise me. If you hear from him, give me a call. And don’t tell Shar I got in touch with you.”
“Right. Got to go.”
Mick considered calling his girlfriend, Alison Lawton, then remembered she, a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch, had told him she had client meetings scheduled back-to-back for most of the day. Two careers, not much time, but when they were together…
He gathered up his jacket and keys, went down the stairs to the floor of the pier, and got on his Harley. Now that he thought about it, he regretted giving Shar the information about where Darcy had e-mailed from. He knew his aunt; even though he’d said he’d look for Darcy, she’d head to The Wiring Hall as soon as she was free and launch an all-out search for her half brother. If she found him—and she would, Mick was sure of that—she’d bring him home and try to rehabilitate him. It wouldn’t work, of course, and she’d be heartbroken. Maybe then Darcy would take up residence under the Golden Gate Bridge—hopefully in the shipping lanes.
Harsh, Savage. Harsh.
He started the bike and headed for Chestnut Street.
Parking in the Marina district was impossible, as always, even with a motorcycle like his Harley. Finally he found a space three blocks from the café that he could wedge the bike into without fear of its being damaged by the vehicles to either side.
The Wiring Hall had neon tubes designed to look like lightning bolts in its large front windows. Inside it was all high-tech aluminum. Several people hunched over their laptops and lattes or used the terminals provided by the café, and none looked up when Mick strode to the counter. A woman of about his age with a tattoo of red rosebuds covering half her face was standing by the register, counting out dollar bills. She’d probably had the tat since her late teens, and Mick wondered if she now regretted it. She would someday, like as not, when the wrinkles set in and all those pretty flowers wilted….
He ordered black coffee, and when the woman brought it, said, “Guy was in here maybe an hour and a half ago. Used one of your terminals. You’d have noticed him: Indian features, funny dyed hair, lots of piercings. Scruffy. Didn’t fit the neighborhood.”
“I’d’ve noticed him if I was on shift then, but mine just started.”
“Who was on then?”
She eyed him suspiciously. He took out his ID case and handed it to her.
“Okay,” she said, returning the case to him. “What are you after the guy for?”
“Nothing bad. He’s just a missing person.”
“Oh. Well, then, the person to talk to is Mira. Mira Rasmussen.”
“Where can I find her?”
“Usually she has lunch at Zero’s.”
Mick knew Zero’s. Small and narrow and noisy and way too expensive. Very popular and God knew why; the food was atrocious. An odd place for a coffee barista to frequently lunch, but then maybe she had odd taste. He walked the two blocks down Chestnut to Zero’s and went inside. The long bar down the right-hand side was crowded. He shouldered between two suits and asked the barman for Mira Rasmussen.
“She’s out back, having lunch.”
“Yeah—like in the kitchen.”
“She’s the owner’s old lady, works down the block.” Someone at the other end of the bar was gesturing for service. “Go straight back through those swinging doors, and you’ll find her.”
Mick went past closely packed tables where people were eating sandwiches dripping with oddly colored veggie mixes, weird-looking salads, and pizzettas loaded with things like arugula and pineapple.
Thank God for steak and fried chicken and meat lasagna!
Behind the swinging doors the kitchen was hot and fragrant with the foods being prepared by a busy staff of five. At the far end of a central prep island, where a short Latino man was chopping tomatoes and onions, a woman with long, dusky hair and large tortoiseshell glasses sat reading the Chronicle and spooning up soup. The soup, Mick noted, was an odd yellow-green and had… things floating in it.
He went to her, introduced himself, and showed his ID.
She looked a little surprised—she’d probably never met a private investigator, and he was relatively young for the job—then held out her hand and said, “What can I do for you?”
He described Darcy, asked, “Did you see him?”
“How could I not? He came in during the early rush, went straight to use one of the terminals, and sent a quick message. A woman who came in after him tried to stop him from sending it, but too late. Then they left.”
“Did you notice anything odd about him, other than his appearance?”
She considered. “He acted… well, furtive. And he kept glancing at the woman as if he were afraid of her. Also, he was whispering to himself.”
“You hear what he whispered?”
“Only a phrase. ‘The palace, the coral tree.’ Weird, huh?”
“Yeah. This woman—can you describe her?”
“Long blond hair. Short. Shabby clothes. I didn’t get a good look at her face.”
“Anything else?” Mick asked.
“The guy grabbed a handful of straws from the condiment station on his way out.”
“Plastic straws for smoothies. Red-white-and-blue-striped.”
“You see which way he went when he left?”
“West, toward Divisidero. The woman was hanging on to his arm.”
“Thanks. If you remember anything else, you have my card.” Mick started across the kitchen, then turned. “By the way, what color is his hair these days?”
“Greenish, an odd yellow-green.”
Like the awful-looking soup she was eating with apparent relish.
This city, it makes me afraid.
Shouldn’t, he knew. Wasn’t like the movies he’d seen of New York, with its crowds and subways and taxicabs that nearly clipped you every time you crossed the street. Or LA—all those messed-up freeways. Or Seattle—that city he knew for real—where if your Indian blood showed on your face, they treated you like some drunken bum. He’d been worse places than San Francisco.
And why was he here?
He was still drugged up from the cocaine he’d shared with Laura before. Now he shook his head, felt the first symptoms of vertigo, and heard a shushing sound in his ears. Leaned against a lamppost and peered up at the street sign: Lyon and California. How the hell had he gotten here? He was supposed to be someplace else. Some palace. Or maybe he’d already been there…
A woman said, “Darcy? You okay?”
He knew her, but he couldn’t remember her name. In her twenties, maybe. Long, dirty, blond hair and gray eyes. Brown cape with fringe that hung almost to her ankles. Sandals and a silver toe ring. She’d come up to him like this before, when he’d found Laura. Laura, who had gone to meet her connection. Laura’d needed a fix bad after two months in jail.
He swayed, and the girl put an arm around his shoulders to steady him. She was very strong.
“Palace,” he said. “Have to go to the palace.”
“You’re sick,” she said.
“Have to go Gaby’s grave.”
“Grave. Under a coral tree. Some… reason…”
“Let me help you.”
He shivered and clung to her while she hailed a cab.
He didn’t want to go with her, but Shar hadn’t answered his e-mail. No wonder—he didn’t have his laptop any more—he’d sold that a long time ago. But didn’t Shar know he had e-mail in his head?
Or did he? Nobody had sent him a message in… what? Months?
A cab pulled to the curb. Yellow. Were they all yellow in San Francisco? Or was that someplace else? The girl helped him in, leaned forward, and whispered an address to the driver.
He took out one of the drinking straws he’d gotten at the café. Twisted it, released it, twisted it again. An old habit, twisting things; it helped him focus.
Not now, though: the vertigo got worse and bile was rising in his throat. He forced it down, dropped the straw, pressed his face into the scratchy wool of the girl’s cape.
This city, it makes me afraid….
The last of my new clients left my office, bound for an interview with Julia Rafael, the operative to whom I’d assigned his case. The others had said they would let me know if they required our services, meaning the fee had put them off. But this latest, a businessman asking for a fairly routine skip trace on a former employee, had wanted to get started immediately.
When I swiveled around I was looking through the big arched window behind my desk. Beyond it the Bay sparkled, the bridge spanning it and disappearing into the tunnel on Treasure Island. Sailboats glided over the blue water. I loved these offices in the pier, but there had been those rumblings from City Hall about demolishing it. If that happened I’d have to move the agency. But where? Not one of the bland office towers that were springing up like mushrooms all over the area. Maybe one of the outlying neighborhoods? Someplace with cheaper rents and more plentiful parking?
No, I didn’t like that idea. The kind of clients we were now attracting expected upscale offices. Ours here certainly weren’t luxurious, but our being in a pier had a certain cachet that made them take little notice of the décor. We’d been doing so well recently that I’d hoped to put the surplus profits into employee raises and health-care options. This impending move would put those plans on hold.
I should have been dealing with the rental-space problem, but I had a more immediate one: Darcy. I’d promised Saskia I’d find him, then had let Mick take over for me, and now I’d heard nothing from Mick.
I checked my phone to see if there was a message from him on voice mail. Nothing. I called his cell, but apparently he’d turned it off. Damn! Of course, Mick didn’t do much fieldwork—he was mainly confined to his computer and the office—and he didn’t know I required my operatives to check in frequently. It wasn’t that I wanted to hamper their movements; it was a simple safety precaution to know where and with whom they were.
The Wiring Hall, I thought. Internet café on Chestnut Street. Maybe I’d catch up with him there.
I soon found I was playing follow the leader with Mick. The woman at The Wiring Hall told me she’d sent him to see a Mira Rasmussen at Zero’s. Mira wasn’t at Zero’s, but after viewing my credentials the bartender gave me her address on nearby Francisco Street, a short distance from Fort Mason.
The building was three stories with an ornate arched entryway and cracked marble floors, probably built in the thirties. Genteel shabbiness: the stucco façade needed painting, and the eaves and downspouts were rusted. The intercom was choked by static. Mira Rasmussen buzzed me in without using it.
Mira’s apartment was on a second-floor corner. I had my ID out and ready when the slender, dark-haired woman opened the door. She wore an ankle-length floral-patterned skirt that flowed around her legs, and a pale pink tee; her eyes grew wide behind tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses as she examined my license.
“Another one,” she said.
“I take it you’ve spoken with my associate, Mick Savage.”
She nodded. “I’m glad you came by; I was just about to try to contact Mick because my friend Nola, who runs the bookstore down the block from Zero’s, stopped in right after he left to give me the key to her flat so I can feed her cat while she’s gone on vacation. I told her about meeting a real-life detective because she’s a mystery novel junkie. Now I can tell her I’ve met two.”
Does this have a point? I wondered. But you never want to crowd a witness.
“Anyway, Nola told me she saw the green-haired guy and a woman getting into a cab on the corner of Lyon and California, near Fort Mason.”
“Did Nola describe the woman?”
“Yeah—sort of a retro hippie type. Dirty, dishwater-blond hair, long cape, sandals. I guess it was the same woman who was with him at The Wiring Hall. My friend said he didn’t act as if he wanted to go with her; he looked kinda sick and she was holding him up and whispering in his ear.”
“Could Nola hear anything?”
“Not much. Just something about a palace.”
The Palace of Fine Arts, maybe. It was several blocks away from where the cab had picked Darcy and the woman up, on the edge of the Presidio.
I called the office, asked Derek to check with the cab companies about a pickup at Lyon and California. He called back within minutes: the fares—a man and a woman—had gone to the Palace of Fine Arts.
The neoclassical-style Palace, its dome rising against the clear blue sky, was mirrored in the lagoon that stretched beside it. The structure, which now housed the Exploratorium museum, had been built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition—a World’s Fair that honored the opening of the Panama Canal and the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean. Where finely dressed ladies and gentlemen had once strolled under its huge rotunda, tourists now took pictures and children ran about, screeching and laughing at the echoes of their voices. Pigeons and gulls swooped through, wary eyes on the interlopers. Strangely for a city with such a homeless problem, there were only two shabbily dressed men curled on the marble floor with their bedrolls; a woman, face turned up to the sun, sat outside with her back against one of the Corinthian columns.
I began walking around, hoping to spot Darcy and the woman. Ducks floated on the placid water, diving under and wiggling their butts as they foraged for food. A man with a small boy diverted them with pieces of bread. The bell on an ice cream cart tinkled, and I bought a waffle cone with a scoop of vanilla chocolate chip from the red-haired vendor. I strolled along some more, watching the tour buses come and go, their occupants exclaim and click their cameras, and the sunbathers bask on the grass.
No Darcy. No woman.
When I returned to my starting point, the ragged homeless woman leaning against the column was still there. I approached her, thinking to ask if she’d seen anyone who resembled Darcy. Her skin was deeply wrinkled and browned, her beige parka stained and torn; she wore glasses with a cracked left lens; her eyes were open behind them.
I knelt down and gently touched a thin arm. The woman shifted the other way and fell over, her head thumping on the concrete.
Shaken, I momentarily drew back, then quickly felt for the woman’s pulse.
Dead. Flesh still warm to the touch, but definitely dead.
Vomit had dribbled from the corners of her cracked lips, and her skin was bluish. Cardiac arrest. Or maybe a drug overdose. There were no outward signs of violence. She’d probably become disoriented, sat down here, and died.
Died alone and unnoticed in a public place, surrounded by the faded architectural beauty of another age.
I waited forty-five minutes at the Palace of Fine Arts for the uniforms and coroner’s people to arrive. The city emergency services’ response time was normally bad, and I supposed this call had been low-priority—after all, the woman was dead.
Briefly I’d considered telling the police that I thought my half brother might have been at the scene, then rejected the notion. There was no proof Darcy had come here and, as for my presence at the Palace, who could say that I wasn’t there to enjoy a beautiful San Francisco afternoon?
I stood on the periphery of the official activities while the technicians did their work and plainclothes cops arrived. After a while a tall, sharp-faced man in a gray suit approached me, his light-brown hair ruffling in a sudden breeze: Inspector Chase Fielding of the SFPD Homicide detail. Homicide always came out in a case where death might not be natural. I’d never met the man, but I’d seen his picture in the Chron and Adah Joslyn, my operative who used to be on the elite squad, told me he was by-the-book but fair.
“Adah Joslyn speaks highly of you,” Fielding said after he’d introduced himself.
“And of you.”
“Tell her hello for me.” He paused, surveying the scene at the Palace. “You found the body?”
“Yes. At first I thought she was just sleeping.”
“Anyone else around?”
“A couple of homeless men with bedrolls inside the dome. They took off before I could ask them if they’d seen anything.”
They’d been aroused by the commotion and vanished into the faceless population of those who wandered the city’s streets and slept in its parks and other public places. The police knew how homeless people sometimes established territories; they’d find them if it was at all possible.
Right now, my primary concern was Darcy.
Okay, they’d left, maybe gone to another palace.
They were grand residences, usually housing royalty or heads of state. Think Versailles, the Imperial Palace, Buckingham Palace, the Kremlin. Louis XIV, the emperors of Japan, the Tudors, the Romanovs. Nothing like that in this city.
What other palace was there? Of course—there was an art museum, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park across the Presidio and beyond the Sea Cliff district. Too far to walk, but Darcy and the woman could’ve caught the outbound 38 Geary bus that ran all the way to Point Lobos and the Veterans’ Hospital. Or hailed another cab.
Who was this woman? As far as I was aware, Darcy knew no one in San Francisco; the closest he’d ever gotten was Berkeley.
But what did I really know of my half brother’s life? He could’ve been to the city many times and not contacted me. Could’ve been living here since he left the Salmon River.
Inspector Fielding was through with me, so I headed for my car, a black BMW Z4 that used to belong to my best friend and sometimes operative, Rae Kelleher. Rae was also sort of family: she was married to my former brother-in-law—Mick’s father—country music star and record producer Ricky Savage. Ricky had a horror of car accidents—both his parents and Rae’s had died in them—and when he’d met Rae she’d been driving an ancient Nash Rambler, appropriately called the Ramblin’ Wreck. He’d ridden in it only once before buying her a yellow Miata. A string of other cars, each one speedier but safer than the last, had followed yearly, and Rae had sold this latest to me last spring. My good luck: the Z4 had had fewer than five thousand miles on it when I took possession. I’d already added a couple of thousand.
Now I drove to Lincoln Park, at the northwest edge of the city. The Legion, a sprawling, colonnaded beaux arts building that took its name from the Palais de la Legion d’Honneur in Paris, loomed on its rise, beautiful but forbidding. Or perhaps that was only my overactive imagination kicking in: from the late 1860s to 1908 much of the surrounding land had been Golden Gate Cemetery, a potter’s field. Although most of the bodies of the indigent or unidentifiable had then been relocated south to Colma, I remembered a grisly 1990s newspaper story about how coffins and skeletal remains that had been missed were unearthed during seismic retrofitting of the art museum.
It was nearing the museum’s closing time. I parked and went up to the entrance. The lone ticket-seller—a woman whose pearls and cashmere sweater set suggested hers was a volunteer position—let me know immediately that I’d made the right decision in coming out here. She remembered Darcy well.
“He asked me where the cemetery was, and at first I didn’t understand which one. But then I remembered the old potter’s field that was relocated to Colma in… I don’t know, a long time ago. But he said that wasn’t the cemetery he was looking for. He started to become agitated—frankly, he didn’t look as if he was feeling very well—and then the woman stepped in. A girl, really, from my perspective.” Her eyes, in their webs of wrinkles, twinkled. “In her early to mid-twenties.”
“Color of hair? Any distinguishing features?”
“Blond hair, not too clean. Her features were nothing outstanding. She was dressed as shabbily as he, but she was polite and very well-spoken. I gave her a list of other cemeteries—we keep them for people who are trying to decide where to inter their loved ones—and they left.” She paused. “I felt sorry for them. He was crying, and the girl couldn’t get him to stop. She said something to him… oh, what was it? These senior moments!”
“Take your time. I have middle-aged moments.”
“Young woman, those are simply periods of distraction or forgetfulness. Keep your mind active, and you won’t end up like me… oh, yes! Now I remember: the girl said, ‘Laura told you that Gaby was dead and buried under a coral tree.’ ”
“Laura who, did she say?”
“No, just Laura.”
“Are you sure the second name was Gaby? G-a-b-y?”
“Or b-b-y. Yes.”
“Does the name hold any significance for you?”
“What’s a coral tree?”
She smiled. “Interesting you should ask; we have one at our place on Maui. You usually find them in tropical or subtropical climates. Sometimes they’re called flame trees, for their bright red flowers. They’ve been known to grow in this area, but they’re very rare.”
A coral tree in a cemetery. Laura. Gaby.
Not much to go on.
Colma, San Francisco’s necropolis.
Sometimes called the City of Silence. Seventeen cemeteries, plus one for pets. The dead outnumbered the living by thousands. The number of memorial parks had burgeoned in the first decade of the 1900s, when San Francisco evicted all existing cemeteries from the city limits—greed for valuable real estate predictably trumping common decency.
Mick’s lead to Colma had begun with a call from Shar: Darcy and the woman he’d been with on Chestnut Street had gone to the Legion of Honor, inquiring about cemeteries. Apparently someone named Laura had told Darcy that someone named Gaby was buried under a coral tree.
Excerpted from City of Whispers by Marcia Muller Copyright © 2012 by Marcia Muller. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Sorry, I tried to read this book, but started it three times and nothing seemed to get my attention. For me, it was a waste of money. I love Sue Grafton's mysteries, but this lady just does not have the charm that Grafton's novels exude.
I look forward to reading Marcia Muller's books when they come out. I have been reading her books for years. The characters have grown up with me and I know their past like my friends. That being said, it feels like Muller is just "phoning it in" with this book. The plots are getting simpler. There is less character development. Even the regular characters barely get mention, let alone any depth. I'll probably read her next book, but I won't be eagerly anticipating it like I have in the past.
Time was I would have picked up a new McCone novel the second it hit the doormat & not put it down until I was done. It's taken me the best part of two months to get through this, more putting down than picking up. The story isn't that bad. It's written in short chapters, switching viewpoint between McCone & her nephew Mick Savage (mostly, there are others represented too). I just found it too choppy to hold my attention. Sorry Sharon!
It's hard to believe that City of Whispers is Marcia Mullers 29th Sharon McCone novel. It seems like just yesterday I was reading the wonderfully entitled Edwin of the Iron Shoes, the first in the series, published in 1977.Generally considered to be the first modern female private investigator, Sharon has (unlike some other long-running series characters) grown and changed with time. She has a successful marriage, a successful business, and an ever-growing family. Having learned that she was adopted as an infant, Sharon found her birth parents, both of whom are Native Americans.In City of Whispers, Sharon receives an email from her half-brother Darcy from an internet cafe in San Francisco. Informed by her mother that Darcy, who has continuing drug and mental issues, has never been in SF before, Sharon mounts a search with the help of her nephew, tech-wizard Mick. The pursuit of Darcy becomes much more complicated than Sharon expects, involving some of the city's wealthiest families.At the beginning of the series, the story was told in the first person, from Sharon's point of view. Here, Muller includes some chapters written from Mick's and Darcy's viewpoint (though not in the first person) allowing the reader to view the same incidents through several pairs of eyes, as well as to experience things that Sharon does not.Of course, opinions are divided as to whether or not Sharon's gorwth has been positive or negative. Some readers complain that too much of the action now takes place inside Sharon's head, that too much of the action is external, that it's wonderful to see Sharon happy in a stable relationship, that her husband is a cloying character. She might as well be a real person.Many thanks to NetGalley and Grand Central Publishing for providing me an e-book to review.
What could he have done now? Where has he been? Why does he show up when he needs something and then not allow us to know where he is? Those were questions Shar asked herself after she received an e-mail from her constantly absent half-brother, Darcy. She always helped him out, but she couldn't help if she couldn't find him. She was worried that this time he was truly in deep trouble.The story takes place in San Francisco in wealthy neighborhoods and also in squalor. You can guess where they were looking for Darcy. The book centered on the search for Darcy and also on his role in the murder of Gaby. His return to the city prompted the re-investigation of Gaby's murder.The chapters were divided into the book¿s characters describing each character's role in the search for Darcy. Luckily Shar and her co-workers were good at detective work. Each suspect in the murder had something to hide and each suspect kept quiet. Gaby had been dead for two years, and opening up the investigation caused those involved to become alarmed and to hide more secrets and cover up what happened with more murders. There were some characters who you would readily suspect and others that will surprise you. The characters were likable, and they all had their secrets¿.¿Secrets, damned secrets.¿ Page 193 According to Sharon, secrets were the root of all evil¿.she even had some of her own.This is the first Sharon McCone mystery I have read. Not bad, but not a gripper. The author, Marcia Muller, has a good writing style, and I liked how she set up each chapter. It became more gripping toward the end. I would not be opposed to reading more of Ms. Muller¿s work. 4/5
PI Sharon McCone receives an email from Darcy, her drug-addicted, mentally unstable half-brother. The email is short - 'Help me. I'm in SF'. Sharon emails back but gets no reply. She assumes he just needs money but something about the message bothers her so she begins a search for him. Soon she finds herself involved in an old, unsolved murder and there are some powerful people who will do anything to keep it that way.City of Whispers is about families and secrets. In this case, somehow, Darcy has got himself involved in some very deadly family secrets and Sharon must find him before he becomes the next victim. Along the way, she will uncover some of her own family's secrets.This novel is divided up into different and alternating sections with three different points of view - Sharon's sections are in the first voice, while Mick Savage's, her assistant and nephew and Darcy's are in the third. With Sharon, we get her concern for her family, Mick his dislike of Darcy but love of his job and with Darcy, not surprisingly, we get the confused, and fractured thoughts of a man with mental and emotional problems.It has been a few years since I read a McCone mystery but I found it easy to pick up where I left off. Author Marcia Muller makes her characters complex and interesting enough that they remain memorable even after long absences. The mysteries are always intriguing but it is these characters which keep the reader coming back for more.
I'm also missing Muller's longer, more elaborate plots, and am less than thrilled with this new style of character 'voices' which at best are thinly written, and at worst a needless contrivance. I love these characters and Muller's storytelling has always been first rate, so I wonder what's going on for her these days that this is what she's turning out. Can't imagine she doesn't know it's not up to snuff.
What could he have done now? Where has he been? Why does he show up when he needs something and then not allow us to know where he is? Those were questions Shar asked herself after she received an e-mail from her constantly absent half-brother, Darcy. She always helped him out, but she couldn't help if she couldn't find him. She was worried that this time he was truly in deep trouble. The story takes place in San Francisco in wealthy neighborhoods and also in squalor. You can guess where they were looking for Darcy. The book centered on the search for Darcy and also on his role in the murder of Gaby. His return to the city prompted the re-investigation of Gaby's murder. The chapters were divided into the book’s characters describing each character's role in the search for Darcy. Luckily Shar and her co-workers were good at detective work. Each suspect in the murder had something to hide and each suspect kept quiet. Gaby had been dead for two years, and opening up the investigation caused those involved to become alarmed and to hide more secrets and cover up what happened with more murders. There were some characters who you would readily suspect and others that will surprise you. The characters were likable, and they all had their secrets….”Secrets, damned secrets.” Page 193 According to Sharon, secrets were the root of all evil….she even had some of her own. This is the first Sharon McCone mystery I have read. Not bad, but not a gripper. The author, Marcia Muller, has a good writing style, and I liked how she set up each chapter. It became more gripping toward the end. I would not be opposed to reading more of Ms. Muller’s work. 4/5
I like this character enough that I am willing to read her any way I can get her, but I am about to lose patience with the way these past 3 books have been written. I disliked the Darcy Blackhawk entries and actually don't like the format of a different voice for each chapter. They are about 1/3 the size of the usual Sharon McCone stories; I miss the full size novels with the impeccable plots . . .will we ever see these again?